The house and its outbuildings are one of the most complete and best preserved urban domestic complexes of the antebellum era.

Aiken-Rhett House. Library of Congress.

(Charleston). The Aiken-Rhett House, located in a block-long lot at 48 Elizabeth Street, is one of the most historically significant properties in Charleston. The house and its outbuildings are one of the most complete and best preserved urban domestic complexes of the antebellum era. John Robinson, a wealthy merchant, began construction of the house in the suburb of Wraggborough around 1818. By the early 1830s, the house and lot had become the property of William Aiken, Jr., a congressman, governor, and one of the wealthiest planters in South Carolina. Aiken dramatically altered the property, moving the entrance from Judith Street to Elizabeth Street, adding an eastern wing, enlarging the kitchen and slave quarters, and building a chicken coop, cowshed, and privies. In the 1850s he renovated these structures and added a northwest wing to house his art collection. With the exception of the cowshed, all of these additions and outbuildings have not only survived but also have remained largely unaltered since the 1850s. Following the death of Aiken and his wife, the property was inherited by his daughter and her family, the Rhetts. In 1975 descendants transferred the site to the Charleston Museum, which operated it as a museum and planned to restore the house to its antebellum splendor. Twenty years later, however, the museum sold the site to Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) for $600,000. The building’s unrestored and unaltered condition attracted HCF, which saw in it a unique opportunity to understand and present antebellum urban life and the African American heritage of Charleston to the public. The foundation has no plans to restore or furnish the Aiken Rhett House complex and instead invites visitors to “marvel at what survives from the ninetieth century rather than search for what is missing.”

Poston, Jonathan H. The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Weyeneth, Robert R. Historic Preservation for a Living City: Historic Charleston Foundation, 1947–1997. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Aiken-Rhett House
  • Author Alexia Jones Helsley
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/aiken-rhett-house/
  • Access Date July 16, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date April 15, 2016
  • Date of Last Update August 26, 2016